Niagara Gazette

June 11, 2013

County panel supports welfare housing inspections

Staff reports
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — A committee is recommending the Niagara County Legislature take a closer look at mandatory housing inspections for local welfare recipients.

Legislator Dennis Virtuoso, D-Niagara Falls, made the pitch to the legislature's community services committee Monday. He's a co-author of proposed legislation directing an ad hoc committee to study and report back to the legislature, by late summer, whether and how a rental-unit inspection program for Niagara County Social Services clients can be implemented.

On the heels of its success persuading the legislature to require that, effective this month, Social Services start paying all Temporary Assistance recipients' monthly housing subsidies directly to property owners, Virtuoso's Democratic minority caucus is pushing for mandatory inspection of rental units as they're let out to recipients. 

The direct-pay order is aimed at stopping welfare recipients from spending their housing subsidies on non-housing related things. The Landlords Association of Greater Niagara lobbied for the order, asserting among other things that property owners can't keep up their rental houses when tenants don't pay rent. Critics said the order strips recipients of their power to withhold rent for substandard housing.

Requiring rental units to pass inspection before Social Services starts cutting checks to landlords would protect both the recipients and taxpayers, Virtuoso said. The recipients would be guaranteed decent housing and Social Services would spend less money relocating them from bad housing.

If they're guaranteed income in exchange for providing decent housing, Virtuoso said, "landlords would have no excuse for for not fixing up their properties. Otherwise they won't get any clients. ... In the long run (inspections) could save us a lot of money, and clean up neighborhoods as well."

The county could embrace the federal Section 8 low-income housing program model, in which rent vouchers are given only for property that passes inspection by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Virtuoso said.

The ad hoc committee should recommend how to get a rental-unit inspection program up and running. Virtuoso identified three options: by county employment of code or housing inspectors; by a contract deal to use the three cities' building inspectors; or by a contract with a private property inspection firm. H.U.D. employs housing inspectors, who require less training and education than municipal building inspectors, he noted.

Before it gets to the "how," the committee will have to determine whether it's legal for Niagara County Social Services to require clients' housing pass inspection and/or withhold rent payments on properties that don't. Commissioner Anthony Restaino warned a program could possibly run afoul of state law, which does not ask Social Services to pre-approve clients' housing choices.

The legislature likely will vote on forming the ad hoc committee at its June 18 business meeting.